Who needs the State?:
Passengers’ Quick Action Halted Attack
By SCOTT SHANE and ERIC LIPTON
December 27, 2009
New York Times
Despite the billions spent since 2001 on intelligence and counterterrorism programs, sophisticated airport scanners and elaborate watch lists, it was something simpler that averted disaster on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit: alert and courageous passengers and crew members.
During 19 hours of travel, aboard two flights across three continents, law enforcement officials said, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bided his time. Then, just as Northwest Flight 253 finally began its final approach to Detroit around noon on Friday, he tried to ignite the incendiary powder mixture he had taped to his leg, they said.
There were popping sounds, smoke and a commotion as passengers cried out in alarm and tried to see what was happening. One woman shouted, “What are you doing?” and another called out, “Fire!”
And then history repeated itself. Just as occurred before Christmas in 2001, when Richard C. Reid tried to ignite plastic explosives hidden in his shoe on a trans-Atlantic flight, fellow passengers jumped on Mr. Abdulmutallab, restraining the 23-year-old Nigerian.
Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director seated in the same row as Mr. Abdulmutallab but on the other side of the aircraft, saw what looked like an object on fire in the suspect’s lap and “freaked,” he told CNN.
“Without any hesitation, I just jumped over all the seats,” Mr. Schuringa said, in an account that other passengers confirmed.“I was thinking, Oh, he’s trying to blow up the plane. I was trying to search his body for any explosive. I took some kind of object that was already melting and smoking, and I tried to put out the fire and when I did that I was also restraining the suspect.”
Mr. Schuringa said he had burned his hands slightly as he grappled with Mr. Abdulmutallab, aided by other passengers among the 289 on board, and began to shout for water.
“But then the fire was getting worse, so I grabbed the suspect out of the seat,” Mr. Schuringa said. Flight attendants ran up with fire extinguishers, doused the flames and helped Mr. Schuringa walk Mr. Abdulmutallab to first class, where he was stripped, searched and locked in handcuffs.
“The whole plane was screaming — but the suspect, he didn’t say a word,” Mr. Schuringa said.
He shrugged off praise for his swift action, which he said was reflexive. “When you hear a pop on the plane, you’re awake, trust me,” he said. “I just jumped. I didn’t think. I went over there and tried to save the plane.”
In an affidavit filed in court, an F.B.I. agent said that Mr. Abdulmutallab stayed in the bathroom for 20 minutes before the attempt, returned to his seat, told his seatmates that his stomach was upset and covered himself with a blanket. It was then that the smoke and popping sounds began.
After he was subdued and the fire extinguished, a flight attendant asked him what had been in his pocket, and he answered, “explosive device,” the affidavit said. The powder was identified by the F.B.I. as PETN, a high explosive.
The close call was followed by several tense hours as counterterrorism officials checked on other United States-bound flights to determine whether more planes were targets, as in the thwarted 2006 plot to smuggle liquid explosives aboard multiple flights leaving from Britain.
They found no immediate signs that other flights were in danger, officials said. They tightened airport security, ordering new restrictions on carry-on luggage and passenger movement inside the cabin, but did not elevate the nation’s threat level, which has been at orange since 2006.
Dozens of investigators led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation were working Saturday to understand exactly how a passenger managed to get PETN and a syringe of chemicals aboard the flight. Intelligence agencies were studying intercepted communications to see whether clues were missed and to assess whether the incident could presage more attacks.
David Schilke, 49, of Livonia, Mich., who works in the information technology department at the Ford Motor Company, was traveling home from Moscow with his wife, Iliana, and their 5-year-old son, sitting two rows behind the suspect. He said he heard a pop, and then someone asking for water and screams coming from the rows in front of him. The fire, he said, lasted for a full minute.
“The guy wasn’t fighting or doing anything,” Mr. Schilke said. “He was just sitting there in the flames. I was shocked that he would do that.” He added that he was surprised at how little panic there was. Many passengers who were farther away thought the pops were from fireworks, he said.
Richard Griffith, 41, of Pontiac, Mich., who said he had been sitting in the back of the plane during the episode, praised the crew for its professionalism in preventing panic.
Mr. Griffith said the passenger who had been sitting next to the suspect told him the suspect got up once midflight to use the bathroom and returned to the bathroom about 20 or 30 minutes before the attempt, apparently to brush his teeth. Otherwise, he said, “He just sat there; he didn’t talk to nobody.”
The episode, which riveted the attention of President Obama on vacation in Hawaii and prompted counterterrorism officials to rush back to work, capped a year in which plots of violence inside the United States have surged. The attempt appeared to underscore the continuing determination of Muslim militants to kill Americans more than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Passengers transferring from foreign flights at the Amsterdam airport, where Mr. Abdulmutallab changed planes and boarded the flight bound for Detroit, are required to be screened by security there before taking off on another flight, an airport spokeswoman said Saturday. She could not confirm the details in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s case but said he was presumably subject to that sort of screening.
Investigators planned to interview all the passengers on the suspect’s flights and to look over any security-camera video footage of him, a law enforcement official said.
Mr. Abdulmutallab apparently left Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos aboard KLM Flight 588, a Boeing 777, at 11 on Christmas Eve and arrived at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam a little early, at 5:37 a.m. on Christmas Day.
Three hours later, at 8:54 a.m., Northwest 253, an Airbus A330, took off for Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, with three pilots, eight flight attendants and the 278 passengers.
Amsterdam has long been an airport of concern for American aviation security officials, like other major gateways in Europe, including London, Brussels and Frankfurt, where the Transportation Security Administration sees an unusually large number of hits from people on so-called selectee or no-fly lists associated with security threats, one former senior Homeland Security official said.
In 2007, the Amsterdam airport began testing body-scanning machines that can find threats hidden under passengers’ clothing, but there are only 10 such machines out of 200 security checkpoints at the sprawling airport. In the United States, the T.S.A. has begun to substitute similar machines, called millimeter-wave technology, for walk-through metal detectors.
“Those will pick up anything underneath clothing,” said Edmund S. Hawley, who served as the agency’s administrator until January. “If he had it taped to his leg, it could have easily identified something there.”
Mr. Hawley said of Al Qaeda and like-minded militants: “They have been trying since 2001, and they are going to keep trying. You have to keep your vigilance up over the long term. That is the hard thing.”
Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt in Washington, Sarah Lyall in London, Micheline Maynard and Nick Bunkley in Detroit, and Matthew L. Wald in Sarasota, Fla.